You hear about these types of problems all the time: A landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit; a customer refusing to pay for repairs that a contractor made to her home. Often, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney, whose fees may be close to or even more than what you're owed. Sometimes, you just can't afford a lawyer anyway.
This is where a small claims court can help. In Alaska, the small claims courts settle legal disputes that involve small amounts of money. The courts are designed to be easy to use, inexpensive, fast, and a lot less formal than the other courts of the state.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Alaska. The person or business that files a small claims lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person or business that is sued is called the defendant. If you're under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or "on your behalf"), and if the defendant is under 18, you have to name his parent or guardian as the defendant.
You file a small claims case in the appropriate district court, which usually is the district court of the county where the defendant lives, but there are some exceptions.
In Alaska, the most you can recover in small claims court is $10,000. If your claim is a little over $10,000, you may want to consider filing in small claims anyway and forget about recovering the full amount. It will be faster, easier, and less expensive than filing suit in another court. If your claim is a lot more than $10,000, you may want to talk to attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
Cases Suitable for Small Claims Court
Many different kinds of cases go to small claims court. Some of the most common are:
- Goods or services sold but not paid for or delivered
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Landlord-tenant disputes, such as suits for security deposit refunds and unpaid or "back" rent
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- Having personal property returned, like equipment, vehicles, etc.
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, and evicting a tenant from your rental property.
Statute of Limitations
This is how long you have to file a lawsuit after something happens. The time period is based upon the type of claim you have. For example, if you were injured in a car accident, you generally have two years from the date of the accident, or from the date you "discovered" your injuries, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Alaska. The time periods can be shorter or longer, depending on your case. So, to be safe, you should file your lawsuit as soon as possible.
You file a small claims case by completing a form called a "Complaint." This form tells the court and the defendant why you're filing suit and what your damages are, that is, how much money or what property you want, and why. The district court clerk has this and other forms you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant). Or, you can get them online.
In Alaska, you can hire an attorney to represent you in small claims court, but you don't have to. The court is designed to help people like you resolve your legal problem without having to pay for an attorney. However, an attorney can give you advice about your suit and the evidence or proof you'll need to win your case. And, in most instances, the defendant will have to pay your attorney's fees if you win the case.
The district court clerk may help you complete the Complaint and other forms, like telling you whose name goes where and where you need to sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Complaint, which will show a "docket number" or reference number for your suit. Use this number to identify your case whenever you contact the clerk.
You have to make sure that the defendant gets a copy of your Complaint and other papers. The clerk will explain these procedures, but generally you have to arrange and pay for the papers to be delivered to (or "served on") the defendant by certified mail, a process server or a state trooper. After the defendant has been served, the clerk will notify you both by mail about the date, time and place for trial.
Sometimes a case is settled before the trial, such as when the defendant pays what it owes you, for example. Other times your case may be heard by a mediator. He listens to you and the defendant, asks questions, and tries to get you both to reach an agreement. If neither of these happens in your case, a trial will be held before either a district court judge or a "magistrate." There are no jury trials in Alaska's small claims court.
At trial, you, the defendant, and all of the witnesses will be sworn in. You'll tell your side of the story first, and the defendant will get a turn. You'll each have a chance to ask each other questions, as well as question any witnesses.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge or magistrate. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the judge may make an immediate decision, or she may need more time to think about the case. When this happens, you'll be notified by mail when the decision has been made.
If the judgment is in favor of the defendant, the case is over and you can't recover any money or damages. If the judgment is in your favor, it will specify how much the defendant has to pay you or what property he has to turn over to you. Either you or the defendant, however, may appeal (ask a higher court to look at the case again) the judge's decision within 30 days after the judgment.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Alaska Small Claims Rules of Court can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $10,400. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a regular court?
- A state-owned maintenance truck hit and destroyed some fencing around my property, but the state refuses to pay for the repairs. Can I sue the State of Alaska in small claims court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?